Barges of Brine on Ohio River?

Plan for Pennsylvania ‘fracking’ waste on hold

Columbus Dispatch
14 January  2013
By  Spencer Hunt

A Texas-based company’s plan to ship thousands of barrels of “fracking” waste into Ohio on river barges has been put on hold as federal officials investigate environmental questions.

GreenHunter Water, of Grapevine, Texas, bought and refurbished liquid-storage tanks at an Ohio River terminal in New Matamoras in southeastern Ohio. The terminal could serve as a transfer point to truck the waste to three disposal wells that the company owns in Washington County.

But the plan was put on hold in June after U.S. Coast Guard officials told GreenHunter that they need to decide whether the waste, also called brine, can be transported as river cargo, and if so, how. Environmental advocates contend that the brine is a pollution threat.

“That particular material is not in our charts yet, so it’s not allowed to be transferred,” said Carlos Diaz, a Coast Guard spokesman. “We want to make sure we make a final decision that’s been thoroughly studied.”

Barges add a new wrinkle to the flood of waste fluids washing into Ohio from the thousands of natural-gas wells drilled into Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale.

Drillers rely on fracking, a process in which millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are pumped underground to shatter the shale and free trapped gas. A similar fracking boom is under way in Ohio’s Utica shale.

Some of the fracking fluid bubbles back up, along with saltwater trapped underground for millions of years. The brine contains spent fracking chemicals, high concentrations of salt and naturally occurring metals and radium.

Millions of barrels of waste are injected back underground in Ohio disposal wells. State records show that 12.2 million barrels of fracking waste and brine were injected in the first half of 2012, 56 percent of which came from Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The brine started arriving in Ohio in 2010 after a Pennsylvania decision that barred sewage-treatment plants from taking it and dumping it in streams. Most of the out-of-state brine comes from Pennsylvania, where there are only a handful of federally regulated disposal wells.

In Ohio, state regulators oversee 179 disposal wells.

Much of the brine comes in tanker trucks that can hold 80 to 150 barrels. Diaz said GreenHunter wants to use a tanker barge that can hold 10,000 barrels. The company’s website says the storage tanks at the New Matamoras terminal can hold as much as 70,000 barrels.

John Jack, GreenHunter’s vice president of business development for its Appalachian region, said barge transport is safer and more cost-efficient than hauling by truck. One barge can haul as much as 1,050 trucks, he said.

“We wanted to eliminate a lot of the trucking,” he said. “We decided barging was the best way to do this.”

The company announced in February and October that it had purchased three disposal wells in Washington County. Officials at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which regulates drilling and disposal wells, said GreenHunter also is converting an old oil and gas well to a disposal well.

Disposal-well regulators have visited the New Matamoras terminal, said Bethany McCorkle, a Natural Resources spokeswoman. She said the terminal opened in July and meets state standards for a temporary storage facility. “An inspector has been there once a month,” she said.

Environmental advocates worry that a barge carrying brine could run into a bridge or another vessel and break apart.

“The (Ohio) River is drinking water for some people,” said Teresa Mills, the Ohio organizer for the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.

Mills and other environmental advocates argue that brine is a threat to drinking water and should be classified as a hazardous waste.

The Coast Guard has no timetable for making a decision on the barge, Diaz said. “Our guys are working this really hard. We are going to be as thorough as we need to.”

Jack said a decision could come in the next two weeks. He’s optimistic the Coast Guard will allow brine for river transport.

“Barges ship hydrochloric acid,” Jack said.